Lakefield Youth Nurture Lettuce from Canoe to Café

Lakefield Youth Unlimited provides training, support for teens, pre-teens

The premise is from canoe to café but a Lakefield produce-growing initiative is having a broader impact on youth and community than lettuce alone.

By farming mesclun, a resilient mix of young salad greens, youth and young adults are acquiring gardening experience, gaining employment skills, receiving resume support and getting paid at the same time.

Meanwhile, the community’s Nutty Bean Café and its patrons receive a regular supply of fresh, local lettuce.

“We’re transforming and using that lettuce and the product of the restaurant to teach a skill and life principles to youth. They can take what they learned and keep going on.”

Lakefield Youth Unlimited’s (LYU) Canoe Lettuce gardens encompass 12 raised gardens, some actually contained in boats and canoes.

Last summer, a local junior high school student attended the gardens and produced a bountiful harvest of tomatoes, lettuce and parsley. The project helps mentor and develop entrepreneurial skills in junior high school-aged students.

Each year, senior high school students or youth group members help prepare the gardens with topsoil and complete yard work around the LYU house.

This year, LYU’s young lettuce farmer, Tyson Clark, has already harvested 40 pounds of lettuce.

Meanwhile, another youth, Hannah Jones, is tending to the vegetable and herb gardens at the café.

LYU’s Chris Jones, satellite director, says it’s exciting to have two paid positions for youth this summer.

“We’re training them, we’re giving them job skills and we treat it like a small business,” Chris tells Electric City Magazine.

“Our hope is when they’re done this, they’re able to get a job. This just isn’t about making sure a product gets to a restaurant.

“We’re transforming and using that lettuce and the product of the restaurant to teach a skill and life principles to youth. They can take what they learned and keep going on.”

When the mesclun is ready, kids cart the lettuce in bins and wagons to the Lakefield main street restaurant.

“The patrons of the café love it,” says Chris.

“They love the lettuce and they love that it’s also local and it’s also youth-driven.”

The students, in grades 6-8, apply for the positions and the successful candidates receive training, pay and references for their summer work. In the early part of the summer, LYU was also able to provide paid work for a college student through a grant it received.

More than a decade ago, the initiative was kick-started by the previous owner of the café, Jay Nutt, in conjunction with Chris. When the café changed hands, the new owner, Sherry Salminen, saw the value of keeping the initiative alive, Chris says.

Over the past 12 years, LYU’s Canoe Lettuce has provided work for 30-40 young people, along with college and university students through funding provided by Canada Summer Jobs.

The Lakefield Horticultural Society provides the seeds and soil and Scott Concrete in Lakefield provides the triple mix. Then the “magic” happens in the gardens.

“We get to laugh with them, pray with them and cry with them,” Chris says. “For us, we believe that God has created everything good and there’s something magical about being in the soil.”

Boaters and other passersby interact with Tyson and Hannah so there’s a link to the community being fostered organically too.

Reflecting on the best things that have happened to date, Chris points to a number of successes. Three young people have been hired for entry-level positions at the café after the experience they gained through the LYU Canoe Lettuce initiative.

“Having a kid feel part of the community, that’s success to me. Having a kid share with one of us how they’re having a hard time when we’re just playing in the soil, that’s success to me.”

“It’s small but for us that’s OK. It’s having a big effect.”

Images courtesy of Lakefield Youth Unlimited’s Facebook page.

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